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"Man of the Year", Paul Revere, and the Deer that Wanted a Ride

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Man of the Year, Paul Revere, and the Deer that Wanted a Ride
By Joan Brunwasser

We have joined the ranks of the nations of good people led by bad governments. We used to exhibit a certain smugness about the superiority of our political system. And now, look at us – mired in an immoral war predicated on lies and distortions, our civil liberties eroded to an alarming extent due to the absence of traditional checks and balances and the total abdication of responsibility on the part of the corporate media. I didn't even mention the rising numbers of people with insufficient or nonexistent health care, the evaporation of pensions and social services, the rape of our budget, and the stripping away of the safety net that gave generations of Americans a sense of security. This is clearly a government that does not look after its people, unless you happen to be in that special top 1 percent that is getting fatter and fatter on tax cuts and tax breaks they don't need and the country can't afford. Big corporations are doing great, thank you very much. Especially cronies of this administration – Halliburton, pharmaceutical companies, oil interests, and insurance companies. Speaking of insurance companies, remember how they threatened that they would all go bankrupt post-Katrina? Instead, they are showing record profits these days. Imagine that! Could those profits be connected to their blanket rejection of many claims of Katrina victims, adding the insult of bureaucratic unresponsiveness to the original trauma? I had an image the other night of us as a third world nation, although no one has actually admitted it. I envisioned a family behind a super-sized plate glass window, well dressed, gorging itself on fine food, living in high style while a hundred families followed their every move, faces hungrily pressed against the glass. The multitudes are shabbily dressed, gaunt, buffeted by the wind, left literally out in the cold.

There is an injunction in Jewish law to take special care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. Why is that? It is obvious that the orphan has lost both his parents and his economic (and emotional) base. The widow has lost her financial underpinnings as well as her spouse. But what about the stranger? Why is the stranger always mentioned in the same breath? It is because the stranger is, even more than the widow and orphan, on his own in a strange and new place and therefore vulnerable and unprotected. We are constantly reminded that we were strangers in Egypt and that gives us a special responsibility toward the weak and defenseless.

The most vulnerable among us in America are the minorities and the poor, particularly urban blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics. They have been major targets for harassment, vote purging and vote suppression. In 2004, letters were sent out to black voters telling them that Republicans were voting on Tuesday and Democrats on Wednesday. Many blacks got phone calls telling them if they had so much as a parking ticket, they would be arrested if they showed up at the polls. (In an echo of last election, it was reported in today's New York Times that a campaign worker for a Republican candidate in California sent out 14,000 letters to Latinos warning that if they came to the polls, they could be deported. Sound familiar?) Others reported men with cameras standing around, photographing license plates and people waiting in line to vote.

Longtime Columbus resident Rev. Moss reported the presence of a number of police officers and cruisers outside his polling place. He had never witnessed such a sight in all his many decades as a voter. The atmosphere was one of intimidation and menace. The picture painted is not a pretty one. If one party feels it can win only by suppressing the votes of large numbers of suspected non-supporters of that party, then you don't need me to tell you that this is not a democracy. The vast majority of us surely agree that all eligible voters should be able to vote and that the duty of government is to expedite and assure that outcome with free, fair, transparent, and secure elections. Instead, we see the voting pool whittled away through purges, challenges, misinformation, misallocation of voting machines and voter IDs which will keep large numbers of poor, rural, and urban minorities from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

I had a dream a while back, and the details are still vivid all these months later. Although my father died over three years ago, in my dream he was still vital and strong. We were driving in a car with my mother, and I was seated in the back, directly behind him. For reasons that I still can't figure out, we were trying to save a deer that was running alongside the car and I was trying to pull it in through the tailgate. While my father was doing his best to accomplish this unexpected and delicate task, we were not successful, and I clearly blamed it on his driving. I made him pull over and we switched places. I did this with tremendous sadness and regret. I didn't relish this handing over the reins. We never got the deer; in fact, we drove off, the deer forgotten. But I remember feeling so sad, knowing that this moment marked the end of an era. No matter how imperfect he was, he had always protected me. I could count on him to bail me out, to make things come out right, to be there. With him gone from the driver's seat (and gone from my life), it is now my responsibility to take care of myself and my family, without any mediators or excuses. The buck stops with me. It's a sobering rite of passage – necessary but painful. And life is so much harder now. I'm from Chicago and I know all about dead people voting early and often. Even so, elections were never hijacked to the extent that they are now.

I just got back from watching Man of the Year, the new Robin Williams movie about a computer program that makes a political satirist the next president. I was thrilled that someone in the mainstream was taking on such a timely topic. Not just anyone, but Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Wag the Dog, among other credits) and Robin Williams. "That'll make 'em stand up and take notice" I told myself excitedly. Last week, the movie's Chicago premier, I read two local reviews that barely touched on the entire premise of electronic voting affecting a national outcome. To make matters worse, they essentially panned the movie. It was very dispiriting, to say the least. And yet, what did I expect when the national media has so assiduously avoided the whole election fraud topic since 2000?

It was heartening to hear from Mike Shelby, an Arizona voting activist, who found the audience 'got' it just fine. When I went tonight, I had to stop myself from hissing aloud or leading the witness, so to speak. The theatre was not filled and I couldn't tell what the audience was thinking. But the dialogue pleased me. Jeff Goldblum, the sleazy lawyer for the electronic voting machine vendor (Delacroy), says quite astutely that in terms of the election, the appearance of legitimacy is more important than legitimacy itself. People voted and the votes were counted; thus, democracy 'worked'. One niggling detail: the votes weren't counted accurately and the wrong person was declared the winner. We now know via many investigations (among them the Harri Hursti/Black Box Voting hack in Leon County, Florida in December 2005, the GAO Report, the Carter-Baker Report, the Brennan Center Report and most recently, the Princeton Center Report) that changing the vote tally is not only easy but can be done in minutes and leave absolutely no trace. As Warren Stewart of VoteTrustUSA put it, is life imitating art or is it the other way around?

Laura Linney is the Delacroy whistleblower who breaks the bad news to Robin Williams. Instinctively, he believes her. Attacked by the bad guys and on the way to the hospital, she tries to explain to Dobbs how the program was switched. She keeps repeating computer lingo that he clearly doesn't understand. She is frustrated because she can't get through to him. That is the feeling that I have had for quite a while, knowing something is wrong, having the evidence, and yet being unable to get through to people.

One day this week, I found myself eating uncontrollably. It didn't matter what it was, in the mouth it went. It didn't even make me feel better; it just hit that emotional emptiness and demanded more. I take all of this very seriously. I am now in the driver's seat. It is my responsibility to do what I can to alert the public about the very real danger that our democracy faces, and it's not from outside our borders.

Remember Paul Revere? People were receptive to his message when he went on that famous ride. His dramatic news was spread in dramatic fashion, by horseback, late at night. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell tells of another who went out that night to spread the word and accomplished virtually nothing. The difference in the messengers is instructive. I had never even heard of Revere's fellow revolutionary, William Dawes. Revere, on the other hand, was what Gladwell calls a "connector," with a friendly personality and a large social network. He was active in many different local organizations and was well known and respected. Who he was meant as much as the news he carried.

He was a fisherman and a hunter, a card player and a theater-lover, a frequenter of pubs and a successful businessman. He was active in the local Masonic Lodge and was a member of several select social clubs. He was also a doer, a man blessed... with an "uncanny genius for being at the center of events." (Gladwell, p. 56)

As he rode along his route, he knew where to stop and whom to awaken to get the chain going. William Dawes did not. He rode from town to town and was unable to stir anyone because he was just an average guy without connections. He simply didn't know which doors to knock on, whom to alert.

I know a few people like Paul Revere and, sadly, in this case, I'm not like him. Perhaps that explains why I'm having trouble rousing people from their collective stupor. Surely, you know some connectors, and if we each spread the word to a few of them, they can greatly multiply our effectiveness. Don't forget that we have to make up for the silent media – we can't sit around and wait for them to sound the alarm. If they were going to, they would have done it long ago. So, it's up to us average citizens to stretch beyond our usual capacity to make connections, to talk this up, to spread the word. There's not a minute to waste. Somehow, we need to achieve this tipping point as soon as humanly possible if we want to retrieve and revive our democracy. Is that important to you? Then, what are you going to do about it?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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